My Discovery of England
Part 3 out of 3
motionless face like a melon. He is always there. I have seen that
man in every town or city from Richmond, Indiana, to Bournemouth in
Hampshire. He haunts me. I get to expect him. I feel like nodding to
him from the platform. And I find that all other lecturers have the
same experience. Wherever they go the man with the big face is always
there. He never laughs; no matter if the people all round him are
convulsed with laughter, he sits there like a rock--or, no, like a
toad--immovable. What he thinks I don't know. Why he comes to
lectures I cannot guess. Once, and once only, I spoke to him, or,
rather, he spoke to me. I was coming out from the lecture and found
myself close to him in the corridor. It had been a rather gloomy
evening; the audience had hardly laughed at all; and I know nothing
sadder than a humorous lecture without laughter. The man with the big
face, finding himself beside me, turned and said, "Some of them
people weren't getting that to-night." His tone of sympathy seemed to
imply that he had got it all himself; if so, he must have swallowed
it whole without a sign. But I have since thought that this man with
the big face may have his own internal form of appreciation. This
much, however, I know: to look at him from the platform is fatal. One
sustained look into his big, motionless face and the lecturer would
be lost; inspiration would die upon one's lips--the basilisk isn't in
it with him.
Personally, I no sooner see the man with the big face than
instinctively I turn my eyes away. I look round the hall for another
man that I know is always there, the opposite type, the little man
with the spectacles. There he sits, good soul, about twelve rows
back, his large spectacles beaming with appreciation and his quick
face anticipating every point. I imagine him to be by trade a minor
journalist or himself a writer of sorts, but with not enough of
success to have spoiled him.
There are other people always there, too. There is the old lady who
thinks the lecture improper; it doesn't matter how moral it is, she's
out for impropriety and she can find it anywhere. Then there is
another very terrible man against whom all American lecturers in
England should be warned--the man who is leaving on the 9 P.M. train.
English railways running into suburbs and near-by towns have a
schedule which is expressly arranged to have the principal train
leave before the lecture ends. Hence the 9-P.M.-train man. He sits
right near the front, and at ten minutes to nine he gathers up his
hat, coat, and umbrella very deliberately, rises with great calm, and
walks firmly away. His air is that of a man who has stood all that he
can and can bear no more. Till one knows about this man, and the
others who rise after him, it is very disconcerting; at first I
thought I must have said something to reflect upon the royal family.
But presently the lecturer gets to understand that it is only the
nine-o'clock train and that all the audience know about it. Then it's
all right. It's just like the people rising and stretching themselves
after the seventh innings in baseball.
In all that goes above I have been emphasising the fact that the
British and the American sense of humour are essentially the same
thing. But there are, of course, peculiar differences of form and
peculiar preferences of material that often make them seem to
By this I mean that each community has, within limits, its own
particular ways of being funny and its own particular conception
of a joke. Thus, a Scotchman likes best a joke which he has all to
himself or which he shares reluctantly with a few; the thing is
too rich to distribute. The American loves particularly as his line
of joke an anecdote with
the point all concentrated at the end and exploding in a phrase.
The Englishman loves best as his joke the narration of something
that actually did happen and that depends, of course; for its point
on its reality.
There are plenty of minor differences, too, in point of mere form,
and very naturally each community finds the particular form used
by the others less pleasing than its own. In fact, for this very
reason each people is apt to think its own humour the best.
Thus, on our side of the Atlantic, to cite our own faults first, we
still cling to the supposed humour of bad spelling. We have, indeed,
told ourselves a thousand times over that bad spelling is not funny,
but is very tiresome. Yet it is no sooner laid aside and buried than
it gets resurrected. I suppose the real reason is that it is funny,
at least to our eyes. When Bill Nye spells wife with "yph" we can't
help being amused. Now Bill Nye's bad spelling had absolutely no
point to it except its oddity. At times it was extremely funny, but
as a mode it led easily to widespread and pointless imitation. It was
the kind of thing--like poetry--that anybody can do badly. It was
most deservedly abandoned with execration. No American editor would
print it to-day. But witness the new and excellent effect produced
with bad spelling by Mr. Ring W. Lardner. Here, however, the case is
altered; it is not the falseness of Mr. Lardner's spelling that is
the amusing feature of it, but the truth of it. When he writes, "dear
friend, Al, I would of rote sooner," etc., he is truer to actual
sound and intonation than the lexicon. The mode is excellent. But
the imitations will soon debase it into such bad coin that it will
fail to pass current. In England, however, the humour of bad spelling
does not and has never, I believe, flourished. Bad spelling is only
used in England as an attempt to reproduce phonetically a dialect; it
is not intended that the spelling itself should be thought funny, but
the dialect that it represents. But the effect, on the whole, is
tiresome. A little dose of the humour of Lancashire or Somerset or
Yorkshire pronunciation may be all right, but a whole page of it
looks like the gibbering of chimpanzees set down on paper.
In America also we run perpetually to the (supposed) humour of
slang, a form not used in England. If we were to analyse what we
mean by slang I think it would be found to consist of the introduction
of new metaphors or new forms of language of a metaphorical character,
strained almost to the breaking point. Sometimes we do it with a
single word. When some genius discovers that a "hat" is really only
"a lid" placed on top of a human being, straightway the word "lid"
goes rippling over the continent. Similarly a woman becomes a
"skirt," and so on ad infinitum.
These words presently either disappear or else retain a permanent
place, being slang no longer. No doubt half our words, if not all of
them, were once slang. Even within our own memory we can see the
whole process carried through; "cinch" once sounded funny; it is now
standard American-English. But other slang is made up of descriptive
phrases. At the best, these slang phrases are--at least we think they
are--extremely funny. But they are funniest when newly coined, and it
takes a master hand to coin them well. For a supreme example of wild
vagaries of language used for humour, one might take O. Henry's
"Gentle Grafter." But here the imitation is as easy as it is
tiresome. The invention of pointless slang phrases without real
suggestion or merit is one of our most familiar forms of factory-made
humour. Now the English people are apt to turn away from the whole
field of slang. In the first place it puzzles them--they don't know
whether each particular word or phrase is a sort of idiom already
known to Americans, or something (as with O. Henry) never said
before and to be analysed for its own sake. The result is that with
the English public the great mass of American slang writing (genius
apart) doesn't go. I have even found English people of undoubted
literary taste repelled from such a master as O. Henry (now read by
millions in England) because at first sight they get the impression
that it is "all American slang."
Another point in which American humour, or at least the form which
it takes, differs notably from British, is in the matter of story
telling. It was a great surprise to me the first time I went out
to a dinner party in London to find that my host did not open the
dinner by telling a funny story; that the guests did not then sit
silent trying to "think of another"; that some one did not presently
break silence by saying, "I heard a good one the other day,"--and
so forth. And I realised that in this respect English society is
luckier than ours.
It is my candid opinion that no man ought to be allowed to tell a
funny story or anecdote without a license. We insist rightly enough
that every taxi-driver must have a license, and the same principle
should apply to anybody who proposes to act as a raconteur. Telling
a story is a difficult thing--quite as difficult as driving a taxi.
And the risks of failure and accident and the unfortunate consequences
of such to the public, if not exactly identical, are, at any rate,
This is a point of view not generally appreciated. A man is apt to
think that just because he has heard a good story he is able and
entitled to repeat it. He might as well undertake to do a snake
dance merely because he has seen Madame Pavlowa do one. The point
of a story is apt to lie in the telling, or at least to depend upon
it in a, high degree. Certain stories, it is true, depend so much
on the final point, or "nub," as we Americans call it, that they
are almost fool-proof. But even these can be made so prolix and
tiresome, can be so messed up with irrelevant detail, that the
general effect is utter weariness relieved by a kind of shock at
the end. Let me illustrate what I mean by a story with a "nub" or
point. I will take one of the best known, so as to make no claim
to originality--for example, the famous anecdote of the man who
wanted to be "put off at Buffalo." Here it is:
A man entered a sleeping-car and said to the porter, "At what time
do we get to Buffalo?" The porter answered, "At half-past three in
the morning, sir." "All right," the man said;
"now I want to get off at Buffalo, and I want you to see that I
get off. I sleep heavily and I'm hard to rouse. But you just make
me wake up, don't mind what I say, don't pay attention if I kick
about it, just put me off, do you see?" "All right, sir," said the
porter. The man got into his berth and fell fast asleep. He never
woke or moved till it was broad daylight and the train was a hundred
miles beyond Buffalo. He called angrily to the porter, "See here,
you, didn't I tell you to put me off at Buffalo?" The porter looked
at him, aghast. "Well, I declare to goodness, boss!" he exclaimed;
"if it wasn't you, who was that man that I threw off this train at
half-past three at Buffalo?"
Now this story is as nearly fool-proof as can be. And yet it is
amazing how badly it can be messed up by a person with a special
gift for mangling a story. He does it something after this fashion:
"There was a fellow got on the train one night and he had a berth
reserved for Buffalo; at least the way I heard it, it was Buffalo,
though I guess, as a matter of fact, you might tell it on any other
town just as well--or no, I guess he didn't have his berth reserved,
he got on the train and asked the porter for a reservation for
Buffalo--or, anyway, that part doesn't matter--say that he had a
berth for Buffalo or any other place, and the porter came through and
said, 'Do you want an early call?'--or no, he went to the
porter--that was it--and said--"
But stop. The rest of the story becomes a mere painful waiting for
Of course the higher type of funny story is the one that depends
for its amusing quality not on the final point, or not solely on
it, but on the wording and the narration all through. This is the
way in which a story is told by a comedian or a person who is a
raconteur in the real sense. When Sir Harry Lauder narrates an
incident, the telling of it is funny from beginning to end. When
some lesser person tries to repeat it afterwards, there is nothing
left but the final point. The rest is weariness.
As a consequence most story-tellers are driven to telling stories
that depend on the point or "nub" and not on the narration. The
storyteller gathers these up till he is equipped with a sort of
little repertory of fun by which he hopes to surround himself with
social charm. In America especially (by which I mean here the United
States and Canada, but not Mexico) we suffer from the story-telling
habit. As far as I am able to judge, English society is not pervaded
and damaged by the story-telling habit as much as is society in the
United States and Canada. On our side of the Atlantic story-telling
at dinners and on every other social occasion has become a curse. In
every phase of social and intellectual life one is haunted by the
funny anecdote. Any one who has ever attended a Canadian or American
banquet will recall the solemn way in which the chairman rises and
says: "Gentlemen, it is to me a very great pleasure and a very great
honour to preside at this annual dinner. There was an old darky
once--" and so forth. When he concludes he says, "I will now call
upon the Rev. Dr. Stooge, Head of the Provincial University, Haroe
English Any Sense of Humour? to propose the toast 'Our Dominion.'"
Dr. Stooge rises amid great applause and with great solemnity begins,
"There were once two Irishmen--" and so on to the end. But in London,
England, it is apparently not so. Not long ago I had the pleasure of
meeting at dinner a member of the Government. I fully anticipated
that as a member of the Government he would be expected to tell a
funny story about an old darky, just as he would on our side of the
water. In fact, I should have supposed that he could hardly get into
the Government unless he did tell a funny story of some sort. But all
through dinner the Cabinet Minister never said a word about either a
Methodist minister, or a commercial traveller, or an old darky, or
two Irishmen, or any of the stock characters of the American
repertory. On another occasion I dined with a bishop of the Church. I
expected that when the soup came he would say, "There was an old
darky--" After which I should have had to listen with rapt attention,
and, when he had finished, without any pause, rejoin, "There were a
couple of Irishmen once--" and so on. But the bishop never said a
word of the sort.
I can further, for the sake of my fellow-men in Canada and the
United States who may think of going to England, vouchsafe the
following facts: If you meet a director of the Bank of England, he
does not say: "I am very glad to meet you. Sit down. There was a
mule in Arkansas once," etc. How they do their banking without that
mule I don't know. But they manage it. I can certify also that if
you meet the proprietor of a great newspaper he will not begin by
saying, "There was a Scotchman once." In fact, in England, you can
mingle freely in general society without being called upon either
to produce a funny story or to suffer from one.
I don't mean to deny that the American funny story, in capable
hands, is amazingly funny and that it does brighten up human
intercourse. But the real trouble lies, not in the fun of the story,
but in the painful waiting for the point to come and in the strained
and anxious silence that succeeds it. Each person
around the dinner table is trying to "think of another." There is
a dreadful pause. The hostess puts up a prayer that some one may
"think of another." Then at last, to the relief of everybody, some
one says: "I heard a story the other day--I don't know whether
you've heard it--" And the grateful cries of "No! no! go ahead"
show how great the tension has been.
Nine times out of ten the people have heard the story before; and
ten times out of nine the teller damages it in the telling. But
his hearers are grateful to him for having saved them from the
appalling mantle of silence and introspection which had fallen upon
the table. For the trouble is that when once two or three stories
have been told it seems to be a point of honour not to subside into
mere conversation. It seems rude, when a story-teller has at last
reached the triumphant ending and climax of the mule from Arkansas,
it seems impolite, to follow it up by saying, "I see that Germany
refuses to pay the indemnity." It can't be done. Either the mule
or the indemnity--one can't have both.
The English, I say, have not developed the American custom of the
funny story as a form of social intercourse. But I do not mean to
say that they are sinless in this respect. As I see it, they hand
round in general conversation something nearly as bad in the form
of what one may call the literal anecdote or personal experience.
By this I refer to the habit of narrating some silly little event
that has actually happened to them or in their sight, which they
designate as "screamingly funny," and which was perhaps very funny
when it happened but which is not the least funny in the telling.
The American funny story is imaginary. It never happened. Somebody
presumably once made it up. It is fiction. Thus there must once
have been some great palpitating brain, some glowing imagination,
which invented the story of the man who was put off at Buffalo.
But the English "screamingly funny" story is not imaginary. It
really did happen. It is an actual personal experience. In short,
it is not fiction but history.
I think--if one may say it with all respect--that in English society
girls and women are especially prone to narrate these personal
experiences as contributions to general merriment rather than the
men. The English girl has a sort of traditional idea of being
amusing; the English man cares less about it. He prefers facts to
fancy every time, and as a rule is free from that desire to pose as a
humourist which haunts the American mind. So it comes about that most
of the "screamingly funny" stories are told in English society by the
women. Thus the counterpart of "put me off at Buffalo" done into
English would be something like this: "We were so amused the other
night in the sleeping-car going to Buffalo. There was the most
amusing old negro making the beds, a perfect scream, you know, and he
kept insisting that if we wanted to get up at Buffalo we must all go
to bed at nine o'clock. He positively wouldn't let us sit up--I mean
to say it was killing the way he wanted to put us to bed. We all
Please note that roar at the end of the English personal anecdote.
It is the sign that indicates that the story is over. When you are
assured by the narrators that all the persons present "roared" or
"simply roared," then you can be quite sure that the humorous
incident is closed and that laughter is in place.
Now, as a matter of fact, the scene with the darky porter may have
been, when it really happened, most amusing. But not a trace of it
gets over in the story. There is nothing but the bare assertion
that it was "screamingly funny" or "simply killing." But the English
are such an honest people that when they say this sort of thing
they believe one another and they laugh.
But, after all, why should people insist on telling funny stories
at all? Why not be content to buy the works of some really first-class
humourist and read them aloud in proper humility of mind without
trying to emulate them? Either that or talk theology.
On my own side of the Atlantic I often marvel at our extraordinary
tolerance and courtesy to one another in the matter of story-telling.
I have never seen a bad story-teller thrown forcibly out of the room
or even stopped and warned; we listen with the most wonderful
patience to the worst of narration. The story is always without any
interest except in the unknown point that will be brought in later.
But this, until it does come, is no more interesting than to-morrow's
breakfast. Yet for some reason or other we permit this story-telling
habit to invade and damage our whole social life. The English always
criticise this and think they are absolutely right. To my mind in
their social life they give the "funny story" its proper place and
room and no more. That is to say--if ten people draw their chairs in
to the dinner table and somebody really has just heard a story and
wants to tell it, there is no reason against it. If he says, "Oh, by
the way, I heard a good story to-day," it is just as if he said, "Oh,
by the way, I heard a piece of news about John Smith." It is quite
admissible as conversation. But he doesn't sit down to try to think,
along with nine other rival thinkers, of all the stories that he had
heard, and that makes all the difference.
The Scotch, by the way, resemble us in liking to tell and hear
stories. But they have their own line. They like the stories to be
grim, dealing in a jocose way with death and funerals. The story
begins (will the reader kindly turn it into Scotch pronunciation
for himself), "There was a Sandy MacDonald had died and the wife
had the body all laid out for burial and dressed up very fine in
his best suit," etc. Now for me that beginning is enough. To me
that is not a story, but a tragedy. I am so sorry for Mrs. MacDonald
that I can't think of anything else. But I think the explanation
is that the Scotch are essentially such a devout people and live
so closely within the shadow of death itself that they may without
irreverence or pain jest where our lips would falter. Or else,
perhaps they don't care a cuss whether Sandy MacDonald died or not.
Take it either way.
But I am tired of talking of our faults. Let me turn to the more
pleasing task of discussing those of the English. In the first
place, and as a minor matter of form, I think that English
humour suffers from the tolerance afforded to the pun. For some
reason English people find puns funny. We don't. Here and there,
no doubt, a pun may be made that for some exceptional reason becomes
a matter of genuine wit. But the great mass of the English puns
that disfigure the Press every week are mere pointless verbalisms
that to the American mind cause nothing but weariness.
But even worse than the use of puns is the peculiar pedantry, not to
say priggishness, that haunts the English expression of humour. To
make a mistake in a Latin quotation or to stick on a wrong ending to
a Latin word is not really an amusing thing. To an ancient Roman,
perhaps, it might be. But then we are not ancient Romans; indeed, I
imagine that if an ancient Roman could be resurrected, all the Latin
that any of our classical scholars can command would be about
equivalent to the French of a cockney waiter on a Channel steamer.
Yet one finds even the immortal Punch citing recently as a very funny
thing a newspaper misquotation of "urbis et orbis" instead of "urbi
et orbos," or the other way round. I forget which. Perhaps there was
some further point in it that I didn't see, but, anyway, it wasn't
funny. Neither is it funny if a person, instead of saying Archimedes,
says Archimeeds; why shouldn't it have been Archimeeds? The English
scale of values in these things is all wrong. Very few Englishmen can
pronounce Chicago properly and they think nothing of that. But if a
person mispronounces the name of a Greek village of what O. Henry
called "The Year B.C." it is supposed to be excruciatingly funny.
I think in reality that this is only a part of the overdone
scholarship that haunts so much of English writing--not the best of
it, but a lot of it. It is too full of allusions and indirect
references to all sorts of extraneous facts. The English writer finds
it hard to say a plain thing in a plain way. He is too anxious to
show in every sentence what a fine scholar he is. He carries in his
mind an accumulated treasure of quotations, allusions, and scraps and
tags of history, and into this, like Jack Horner, he must needs
"stick in his thumb and pull out a plum." Instead of saying, "It is a
fine morning," he prefers to write, "This is a day of which one might
say with the melancholy Jacques, it is a fine morning."
Hence it is that many plain American readers find English humour
"highbrow." Just as the English are apt to find our humour "slangy"
and "cheap," so we find theirs academic and heavy. But the difference,
after all, is of far less moment than might be supposed. It lies
only on the surface. Fundamentally, as I said in starting, the
humour of the two peoples is of the same kind and on an equal level.
There is one form of humour which the English have more or less to
themselves, nor do I envy it to them. I mean the merriment that they
appear able to draw out of the criminal courts. To me a criminal
court is a place of horror, and a murder trial the last word in human
tragedy. The English criminal courts I know only from the newspapers
and ask no nearer acquaintance. But according to the newspapers the
courts, especially when a murder case is on, are enlivened by flashes
of judicial and legal humour that seem to meet with general approval.
The current reports in the Press run like this:
"The prisoner, who is being tried on a charge of having burned his
wife to death in a furnace, was placed in the dock and gave his name
as Evans. Did he say 'Evans or Ovens?' asked Mr. Justice Blank. The
court broke into a roar, in which all joined but the prisoner. . . ."
Or take this: "How many years did you say you served the last time?"
asked the judge. "Three," said the prisoner. "Well, twice three is
six," said the judge, laughing till his sides shook; "so I'll give
you six years."
I don't say that those are literal examples of the humour of the
criminal court. But they are close to it. For a judge to joke is
as easy as it is for a schoolmaster to joke in his class. His
unhappy audience has no choice but laughter. No doubt in point of
intellect the English judges and the bar represent the most highly
trained product of the British Empire. But when it comes to fun,
they ought not to pit themselves against the unhappy prisoner.
Why not take a man of their own size? For true amusement Mr. Charles
Chaplin or Mr. Leslie Henson could give them sixty in a hundred.
I even think I could myself.
One final judgment, however, might with due caution be hazarded.
I do not think that, on the whole, the English are quite as fond
of humour as we are. I mean they are not so willing to welcome at
all times the humorous point of view as we are in America. The
English are a serious people, with many serious things to think
of--football, horse racing, dogs, fish, and many other concerns
that demand much national thought: they have so many national
preoccupations of this kind that they have less need for jokes than
we have. They have higher things to talk about, whereas on our side
of the water, except when the World's Series is being played, we
have few, if any, truly national topics.
And yet I know that many people in England would exactly reverse this
last judgment and say that the Americans are a desperately serious
people. That in a sense is true. Any American who takes up with an
idea such as New Thought, Psychoanalysis or Eating Sawdust, or any
"uplift" of the kind becomes desperately lopsided in his seriousness,
and as a very large number of us cultivate New Thought, or practise
breathing exercises, or eat sawdust, no doubt the English visitors
think us a desperate lot.
Anyway, it's an ill business to criticise another people's
shortcomings. What I said at the start was that the British are
just as humorous as are the Americans, or the Canadians, or any of
us across the Atlantic, and for greater Certainty I repeat it at
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